Charles Leaf sees a correlation between the five years he spent in the Marine Corps and his current work as an investigative reporter for Fox-owned Channel 31. "I believe it's an important calling to serve the public, whether it's serving your country or your community," he says.
As these remarks demonstrate, Leaf, who's in his mid-thirties, sees himself as a crusader. Yet several previous on-the-job incidents raise questions about his aggressive style. During a stint at a station in Mobile, Alabama, he was the focus of a 1999 lawsuit that impugned him for a "willful physical attack" against a local councilwoman; the case was eventually settled. Two years later, while working in Detroit, a man told police that Leaf spewed homophobic obscenities and tried to attack him after the reporter was pelted with eggs while covering a story. And Bobbi Barrow, spokeswoman for Denver Health Medical Center, believes Leaf misrepresented himself to get an interview with her boss, Dr. Patricia Gabow, at an event last November. "What he did was unprofessional," Barrow says.
Leaf denies this last accusation and insists that he did nothing wrong during the Mobile and Detroit episodes. Indeed, he views himself more as victim than victimizer. "If what took place in Mobile hadn't happened, you wouldn't be talking to me about someone in Detroit throwing eggs at me," he says.
Becoming a Marine was "the greatest achievement of my life," Leaf notes. But he also aspired to become a journalist, and in 1998, a few years after graduating from Syracuse University, he landed at Mobile's WPMI. At first he got good press, but that ended after November 8, 1999, when he covered a council meeting in a town where residents were upset by the impending exit of their police chief. As tempers rose, councilmembers gaveled the session to a close and fled the room. Leaf and a cameraman trailed one official, Frela Wojciechowski, to a car waiting to pick her up in the parking lot. The car departed within seconds, but not before Wojciechowski was squashed in the passenger-side door. Her lawsuit, which was pushed after local authorities chose not to press charges against Leaf, stated that she sustained bruises to her arms and legs.
What happened? Leaf says that when Wojciechowski attempted to enter the car, she swung the door out so violently that it bounced off him and back at her. It takes an active imagination to believe such a carom could injure Wojciechowski, since the door hit a person and not a giant SuperBall. But Leaf stresses that he was stationary, neither pushing the door nor walking, running or stumbling against it. He believes videotape shot by his cameraman would have supported his contention if it hadn't been recorded over before the lawsuit was filed.
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Attorney Joseph M. Allen Jr. , speaking for Wojciechowski, confirms that he and his client were "very pleased" by the settlement, but otherwise stays mum. As for WPMI general manager Sharon Moloney, she wouldn't address the lawsuit or a December 1998 dispute between Leaf and a station photographer to which police were called. The Mobile Register described the altercation as "physical," but Leaf says only harsh words were exchanged, and no charges resulted.
When asked if these two occurrences played a role in his departure from WPMI weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Leaf replies, "That's officially what the company and I have agreed to -- that it didn't have anything to do with it." He adds that he "didn't pay a dime" of the settlement, which was reached by WPMI after he moved on.
These experiences didn't make Leaf unemployable. He went from a Fox station in Kansas City to WJBK, in the larger Detroit market. There he earned an Emmy for a report about child abduction; the recommendation that brought him to Channel 31 last June; and unwanted ink from the Metro Times, a Detroit weekly, related to an October 26, 2001, visit to a run-down building where residents were being evicted in advance of renovation.
As Leaf and his cameraman arrived at the building, Sebastian Graham, the owner of a nearby home business, jeered them; Graham says he felt Fox was unfairly vilifying the landlord, whom he calls a sincere person upgrading a dangerous eyesore. The newsmen conducted some interviews, and as they were getting ready to leave, several young people allegedly unhappy with Fox for an unrelated reason -- its coverage of the war in Afghanistan -- expressed their displeasure by smashing an egg on Leaf's head and tossing others at him. When one hurler appeared to enter the back of Graham's house, Leaf went to the front door because, he says, he wanted to pinpoint the miscreant's location for police, whom his cameraman had already phoned. As Leaf tells it, Graham opened the door and shouted at him, but he didn't rise to the bait.
For his part, Graham says that Leaf, accompanied by the cameraman and a source from the building, assumed he had been part of the egging and went off on him: "He called me a &'cocksucker' and a 'faggot,' and his cameraman hit me. He tried to hit me, too, but he didn't make contact." Graham maintains that the trio left only after he reacted to a haymaker from the third man by kicking him in the stomach. Afterward, Graham told cops to check for video of the incident, because the camera's light was on during the melee, but the TV folks swore nothing had been taped.
From the beginning, Graham says, people advised him "to drop the criminal stuff and sue -- take a settlement. But I wanted him treated like any jackass who assaulted me on my porch." After prosecutors dragged their feet for several months before determining that there wasn't enough evidence to move forward, he felt otherwise: "If I knew what I know now, I might have said, ŒGive me some cash and I'll never mention this again.'"
WJBK general manager Jeff Murri wouldn't comment on this assertion or anything else, but Leaf scoffs at the idea that he could be guilty of such offenses. "I'd never say or do anything like that," he vows.
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In contrast, Leaf doesn't back away from the conduct that irritated Denver Health's Gabow. He says that in the midst of researching an upcoming investigation, he repeatedly requested an interview with Gabow, but received only evasions. Then he learned that the Mexican Consulate would be giving Gabow the Ohtli Award, the most prestigious medal given by the Mexican government to individuals outside that country, at a November 20 Denver Botanic Gardens ceremony. Leaf asked permission from Channel 31 news director Bill Dallman to attend the bash and interview Gabow; to Dallman, this proves it wasn't a "loose-cannon situation." Dallman told Leaf that he and a crew could do so if they first asked Gabow about the award, a newsworthy tribute. Leaf says that after approaching Gabow at the Botanic Gardens, she agreed to an interview -- but when he changed the subject from the Ohtli to other issues, she muttered under her breath and walked away. Afterward, station personnel apparently concluded that getting an Ohtli wasn't that remarkable after all, since nothing was aired about it.
Spokeswoman Barrow, who sent a formal complaint to Channel 31, criticizes Leaf for dishonesty. "We felt it was an inappropriate venue for the kind of interview he really wanted to do," she says. But Leaf thinks Gabow's refusal to talk was the greater sin. "It's my job to hold the powerful accountable," he declares.
The choice to put Gabow on the spot is clearly in a different category than allegations of physical or verbal assault. Whether it's evidence of a dubious pattern of behavior is another matter. News director Dallman won't go there; he's comfortable praising Leaf's work for Channel 31 -- particularly a November exposé of security weaknesses at chemical plants -- but says any discussion of how much he knew about his history are off limits because they involve hiring and personnel. Troubleshooter Tom Martino, who heads the undercover unit that features Leaf, is under no such restrictions, since he had no part in picking the team. He says he'd never heard about Leaf's time in Mobile and Detroit.
That's fine by Leaf, who wants to be known for his reporting today, and not for what he sees as wholly inaccurate portrayals of his past actions and character. "I have nothing to hide," he says. "I am who I am."